I’m listening to Michael Finnissy’s piano music. And my ears and my brain don’t know where to start. In particular, I’m listening to Nicolas Hodges’ recording ofEtched Bright with Sunlight, the final chapter of Finnissy’s massive cycle for solo piano, The History of Photography in Sound. The effect it makes is a coruscating brilliance, a dazzle of texture and shimmer that’s an aural analogy of the intensity and pain-pleasure of looking directly into the sun. But then the music slows, stops, descends, and goes down again, right to the depths of the piano’s register, and now there’s an inchoate, frightening sense of the uncanny, the despairing. Those are just two extremes in about five minutes of music, and for the next 25 minutes, the piece is pitched at all the expressive and pianistic points in between – of speed and slowness, density and translucence, of simplicity of melody and untameable teem of polyphony and counterpoint.
But the music of Michael Finnissy – who was born in Tulse Hill in south London in 1946, and studied as a pianist as well as composer – isn’t ever just about the way things sound. His gigantic output of piano and chamber music, vocal and choral works, ensemble and orchestral pieces, is a testament to a lifetime’s interrogation of what it is and how it is that music means something, how the notes he writes down on his manuscript paper connect with culture, with our emotions, with our personal and social identities. Take that pianistic magnum opus, The History of Photography in Sound, for example. Finnissy sums up his aims in compiling this gargantuan, five-and-a-half-hour cycle of pieces: “the ‘History’ (that which is always being forgotten and newly remembered) of ‘Photography’ (which records things as they seem to be) in ‘Sound’ (the magma of music before the ‘obscene formulae’ of Plato and those who follow)”. Got that? That’s just a scintilla of Finnissy’s complex thought in and about music.
Because there is a complexity in Finnissy’s music. But this isn’t an ideological complexity, a difficulty for difficulty’s sake. (However, Finnissy’s scores are astonishingly labyrinthine: I remember seeing a score of the piece that Nicolas Hodges will play at the Proms on the 11 August, his Piano Concerto No 2, and having my mind boggled and fingers fried by the attempt to understand how it was humanly possible to imagine and realise the astonishing intricacy of Finnissy’s rhythms. He often asks the pianist to play irregular groups of notes against one another – I could just about cope with three against two, but the 17 against 30, 15 against 29, that Finnissy demands? How could anyone actually hear that, let alone play it, co-ordinate it between your hands? Impossible! And yet pianists like Hodges and Ian Pace – whose remarkable world premiere performance of the complete History at the Royal Academy of Music a decade ago was an epic revelation of the “magma” of Finnissy’s music – manage this kind of pianistic feat all the time.)
In fact, the real difficulty of Finnissy’s music is the richness and complexity that’s really part of all music – if we choose to hear it. Finnissy’s transcriptions of other composers’ music prove the point. His versions of tunes by Gershwin and operatic melodies and scenes by Verdi might seem, when you first hear them, to be in a different universe from the originals, since he often surrounds a melody like Gershwin’s They Can’t Take That Away From Me with dense clouds of virtuosic modernist chiaroscuro. But these pieces are about writing down how Finnissy hears Gershwin, the labyrinth of meanings and associations and implications this music has for him. They’re also, incidentally, directly inspired by Finnissy’s love for what Fred Astaire and Judy Garland did with Gershwin. In fact, one of Finnissy’s Gershwin realisations, Limehouse Nights, is “a mixture of camp chinoiserie and polyphonic razzmatazz”, Finnissy says, “turned on as much by the opening sequence of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as by Gershwin’s early show tune”. And that endless web of associations is actually how all of us hear music: nothing is ever in isolation, our ears and our brains and our bodies are always making connections between any new work we hear and every other piece of music and cultural experience we’ve ever heard and had. It’s just that Finnissy is able to make music from that process with infinitely greater subtlety, sensitivity, and virtuosity, than the rest of us.
And transcription, for Finnissy, is the key compositional principle: whether he’s using and transforming folk tunes from Britain, as in his Folklore pieces for solo piano, or thinking about Australian Aboriginal music, as in his awe-inspiring orchestral piece Red Earth; whether he’s transfiguring Verdi or completingMozart’s Requiem in a version that employs the whole sweep of music history, of styles, periods, and references from 1791 to the present day (a piece he premiered in Southampton in November last year), Finnissy’s music is a continual exploration of where this music comes from, a revelation of the essential fact that there is nothing that you can do that’s properly new as a composer. All you can really do is put what’s already out there together in new combinations. Few composers face up to the cultural, creative, and political responsibilities of the freight of musical history as sensitively as Finnissy does – and few composers working today have managed to connect contemporary music’s expressive power as convincingly with its critical, intellectual potential. Finnissy’s avowedly spiritual recent choral works, inspired by his religious faith, embody that connection. There’s a lifetime of listening in Finnissy’s music, an encounter with a way of hearing and relating to the whole of today’s world, not just its music – just as there’s been a lifetime of writing it for its composer.